How to Identify and Safely Remove a Tick From Your Skin: A Complete Guide to Tick Bites

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified physician at Saba University School of Medicine

Ticks are pretty common: if you’ve spent any time outdoors in warmer months, you’ve likely encountered ticks at some point. But are tick bites dangerous? Let’s find out!

In this article, we’ll talk you through the potential dangers of ticks, how to avoid them and prevent them from biting you, and how to safely remove a tick from your skin.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small blood-sucking parasites that live in heavily wooded and grassy areas. These eight-legged creatures — which are part of the arachnid family, along with scorpions, mites, and spiders — vary in size and color, ranging from shades of brown or reddish-brown to black. Some may have lighter markings on their backs.

Ticks can’t fly or jump, so they usually hide in the grass or shrubs and wait for their potential host to pass by.

As you brush against the grass ticks are hiding in, they quickly climb on you and then crawl to the area they deem suitable for feeding.

Because of their small size, ticks can be hard to spot, but they start to grow as they take in more blood. At their largest, they can grow to about the size of a marble. After feeding for several days, a tick can change color and turn greenish-blue.

How to tell if you have a tick bite on your skin

Ticks are attracted by the body heat of their future host. They can attach themselves to any part of your body, but they prefer warm, moist areas with soft skin and plenty of blood. The first areas you need to check for ticks are:

  • Your neck and head, especially inside and around your ears
  • Your belly button
  • The back of your knees
  • Your armpits
  • Between your legs

Once you’re back from the area where you might have encountered ticks, make sure to check your entire body. If you have pets, check them for ticks too, as ticks are just as likely to bite our furry friends. Discuss using tick-repellent products for your pets with your veterinarian.

A woman applying insect repellent to prevent tick bites

When a tick reaches a desirable spot, it bites into your skin and starts drawing blood. They usually stay attached to your skin for up to 10 days after they bite you. Once they start sucking on your blood, they get bigger and easier to spot.

Unlike other blood-sucking bugs, ticks tend to bite you once. You may not feel it bite you; tick bites usually don’t cause any itching either. However, sometimes you may experience an allergic reaction to a tick bite and get a rash or a small hard lump that looks like a mosquito bite.

Are tick bites dangerous?

Tick bites themselves are often harmless and don’t cause any symptoms, except for a skin reaction. But if you are allergic to ticks, you may experience:

  • Pain and swelling at the bite site
  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Blisters
  • Shortness of breath — in case of a severe allergy

That being said, ticks can carry bacteria, viruses, infections, and diseases that can be dangerous or even life-threatening when not treated promptly, such as:

  • Lyme disease
  • Tick bite fever
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • Tick-borne encephalitis
  • Tularemia
  • Ehrlichiosis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Babesiosis

It typically takes more than 24 hours of feeding for a tick to pass on an infection. So, the sooner you see and remove a tick from your skin, the better.

Your risk of catching a tick-borne disease depends on where you live or travel to, as different areas have different risks.

Make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible if you’ve been bitten by a tick, especially if you start developing flu-like symptoms. They will run some tests and determine if any treatment is necessary, depending on your symptoms and the type of tick that bit you.

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Symptoms of a tick-borne disease

Most of the tick-borne diseases share the same symptoms that include:

  • Redness or rash near the bite site
  • Full body rash
  • Itchy skin
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle ache
  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stiff neck
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Most symptoms appear within a few days or sometimes weeks after a tick bite. If you notice any of them, seek immediate medical help. Take a picture of a tick that bit you with you if you have it. Different types of ticks transmit different illnesses, so seeing the tick that bit you can help your doctor identify potential risks.

How to safely remove a tick

The most important thing you can do if you find a tick on your skin is to remove it as soon as possible. You can do it yourself with a pair of clean, fine-tipped tweezers — avoid touching it with your bare hands.

  • Grab the tick a pair of tweezers as close to your skin’s surface as possible.
  • Pull it upward with steady, even pressure. Avoid twisting or bending the tick — it can cause its mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin.
  • Check if any of the mouth parts are still attached to your skin. Carefully remove them with tweezers. If you can’t do it, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
  • Clean the bite area with water, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, or iodine after removing the tick.
  • Put the tick in alcohol to make sure it’s dead.
  • Place the tick in a sealed container or take a picture of it. You may need to show it to your doctor if you start developing any symptoms of a tick-borne disease.
Sign warning about ticks in the forest

When to see a doctor

If you noticed a tick bite shortly after being outdoors, chances are you won’t get any potentially dangerous infections or develop any symptoms. But you may want to check with your doctor regardless, to eliminate any risks and put your mind at ease.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You can’t completely remove the tick.
  • You get a rash around the bite site.
  • You develop flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, and muscle and joint pain.
  • You suspect the bite is infected — you notice such symptoms as pain, change in skin color, and oozing from the bite.

Seek immediate medical attention if you develop:

  • A severe headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Paralysis
  • Heart palpitations

How to prevent tick bites

Preventing tick bites is the best way to avoid a tick-borne disease. If hiking is your passion or you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in heavily wooded areas, follow these simple steps to protect yourself from tick bites:

  • Cover as much skin as possible. Wear a long-sleeved top and tuck your pants into your socks to give ticks less area to attach to.
  • Wear light-colored clothing. This makes it easier for you to spot a tick if it gets on you.
  • Treat your clothes and shoes with 0.5 percent permethrin. Always read the instructions before use and apply it to your clothes in a well-ventilated area.
  • Use insect repellents. Apply a repellant with 20 percent or more DEET on exposed skin and clothing.
  • Stick to the center of the trails when walking through the woods or grassy areas.
  • Check your skin for ticks after you’re back from the great outdoors. They may attach anywhere, but pay close attention to the areas that are most attractive to ticks.
  • Check your clothes and gear and wash them immediately. Put your clothes in a dryer for 15 minutes to kill the ticks.
  • Take a shower within 2 hours after being in tick-prone areas.

Final thoughts

Tick bites are common and often harmless. But they can carry potentially harmful diseases like Lyme disease. So it’s important to take precautions if you’re working or spending time outside.

Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when in tick-prone areas, treat your clothes and shoes with 20 percent DEET or 0.5 percent permethrin, and check yourself for ticks after you’re back home. Remove a tick from your skin if you see it on you and make an appointment with your doctor if you start developing any allergy or flu-like symptoms.

October 21, 2022